I have previously written about the controversy over President Donald Trump’s comments on Hurricane Dorian and the latest self-inflected wound in what is being called “Sharpiegate.” The name however masks something more serious. It is not the bizarre decision to mark up a hurricane map with a Sharpie to extend the path to Alabama. It is not even the bizarre refusal to just acknowledge an honest mistake in not acknowledging that path predictions on that day showed the hurricane avoiding Alabama. The more serious problem is what the statement by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) effectively rebuking the forecast of its Birmingham office contradicting the President. There are now reports that the Commerce Secretary threatened firings if NOAA did not issue a statement supporting Trump’s untrue statement. When Trump issued his statement no one was predicting that the hurricane would hit Alabama (days earlier there was a possibility that Alabama could be effected). Various scientists and experts denounced NOAA’s statement and the politicalization of NOAA. Now the Inspector General is investigating and Craig McLean, NOAA’s acting chief scientist, has called the unprecedented NOAA statement “political” and a “danger to public health and safety.”
The unsigned statement that supported Trump’s account shocked experts in the area because NOAA has historically been protected from political pressure and is widely respected as an apolitical and renowned scientific organization. Various former high-ranking NOAA officials called for the resignation of acting NOAA head Neil Jacobs and now Secretary Wilbur Ross (who has denied threatening to fire people).
The one fact that is clear is the statement itself. In his equally rare intervention, McLean stated “My understanding is that this intervention to contradict the forecaster was not based on science but on external factors including reputation and appearance, or simply put, political.” He added “If the public cannot trust our information, or we debase our forecaster’s warnings and products, that specific danger arises.”
Now the Inspector General will investigate. It is again baffling to see this type of self-inflicted damage. The public trusts and relies on NOAA. It is a clean and respected an agency as you will find in government. If the IG’s report finds that the White House pressured scientists to retract a forecast to spare the President from embarrassment, it could be highly damaging with voters who relies on NOAA for its accuracy and honesty. Indeed, in key states like Florida, NOAA hurricane forecasts are the most important criteria in making plans for families.
There is ample reason for an IG investigation. This is no small thing. We need our scientists to be protecting from political pressure and focus on accurate science-based projections. The rebuke of the Birmingham forecast shattered that tradition.
I have criticized the media for what I see as biased reporting against Trump — just as I have criticized Trump for his attacks on the media. However, the only thing greater than the winds of Dorian was the spin of the White House excusing the President’s conduct. Once again, no one would have placed much import on the President admitting a mistake in saying that he was referring to dated (and now invalid) projections of the Hurricane path. Instead, the refusal to admit a mistake (however small) has now triggered another IG investigation and global ridicule.
Trump supporters are doing the President no favors in playing along with this spin. Polls are showing an increasingly bad political position for the GOP, including a rising threat to losing the Senate in 2020 (something considered remote just a few months ago). That does not mean that the Democrats cannot again lose the unloseable election. However, beating up on NOAA is not going to help.